Bollywood hit PK's satire on Hinduism prompts protest in BJP-ruled India
Tourists in India may chance upon a bewildering spectacle: as hordes of film buffs gather outside cinemas to see Bollywood's latest blockbuster, angry mobs are screaming for the arrest of the movie's hero for allegedly defaming Hinduism.
Even as Hindu leaders call for a ban on Rajkumar Hirani's PK, the controversial film has been breaking box office records since its release on December 19.
Less than three weeks into its ongoing run, PK became the top-grossing film of all time in India, dethroning previous domestic box office champion Dhoom 3 (2013), another December release starring PK lead actor Aamir Khan. And while Dhoom 3 remains Bollywood's biggest box office earner worldwide - for now, with total box office takings estimated at around US$85 million - Khan's latest hit has become the first Indian film to pass the fabled 300 crore rupees (HK$373 million) mark at the local box office.
Khan plays PK, an alien who is marooned in the Rajasthan desert and stumbles upon the hypocrisy and deceit in organised religion. PK - who resembles Mad magazine's jug-eared mascot Alfred E. Neuman - then sets about exposing a Hindu "godman", a term for a charismatic guru who may claim to have paranormal powers.
PK has all the elements of a big-budget Bollywood film - song, dance, romance, melodrama, comedy, incredible plot twists. The rollicking satire also packs a message, typical of films by director Hirani, who first achieved international success with 3 Idiots (2009), also starring Khan.
Bollywood has successfully lampooned "godmen" before, most recently in Umesh Shukla's Oh My God! (2012). But PK hit the screens after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power last year with a strong mandate for its leader, Narendra Modi.
As a result, newly empowered radical Hindu organisations affiliated to the BJP pounced on PK after its release. Nationwide protests have been organised outside cinemas, even vandalising a few and forcing some to cancel screenings. Complaints have also been filed with the police and in courts demanding a ban on the film and the arrest of its director and star.
The influential yoga guru Baba Ramdev has even asked for a social boycott of everyone associated with the film. "People think 100 times before talking against Islam," he said. "However, when it comes to Hinduism anyone gets up and says anything. This is shameful."
PK (the title is a play on the Hindi word for being drunk) also has an elaborate side story that has further upset Hindu nationalists: the heroine (played by Anushka Sharma) falls in love with a Pakistani Muslim, is heartbroken when she thinks he has ditched her, but is eventually reunited with her boyfriend by the alien. At a time when militant Hindu groups are conducting a high-decibel campaign against Indian Muslim men marrying Hindu women (a practice labelled "love jihad"), this is not a denouement that gets the approval of the religious right.
It does not help that PK's leading man is an Indian Muslim of Pashtun lineage. So the hidden hand of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has also been sighted. "Who financed the PK film? According to my sources it is traceable to Dubai and ISI. DRI [India's revenue intelligence agency] must investigate," tweeted BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy.
Indians, however, appear to have fallen in love with the film, despite the protests, accepting Khan's defence that "we respect all religions". Even other Bollywood actors have tweeted support. "Is PK not an amazzziiiiing film?" Salman Khan - whose father is Muslim and his mother Hindu - asked rhetorically while entertainment personality Pooja Bedi tweeted: "God wants SPIRITUAL FRUIT … not RELIGIOUS NUTS!! Let's support #PK."
The hullabaloo appears to have sowed confusion in the BJP camp. In Mumbai, after a junior minister announced a police inquiry into PK, the BJP chief minister of Maharashtra state ruled out any action against the movie. And even as angry Hindus smashed cinema foyers, BJP veteran leader Lal Krishna Advani hailed PK as "a wonderful and courageous film".
But the one person whose opinion the public are usually keen to hear has remained silent. Prime Minister Modi loves to hold forth on social and cultural issues, but he has not said a word yet on the PK drama.
Guardian News & Media